Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Teachable Moments

I've heard this one so many times before, and yet, today, I was struck anew by the inanity of it.

Student: "Hey, can you let me into [upper division course not required for the major]?"

Me: "It's full."

Student: "I know - can you let me in anyway?"

Me: "Is there some reason you need to be in this course?"

Student: "Well... it really fits my schedule."

How many times have each of us had this conversation? How many times have I just laughed and said "no" and walked away? How is it that I was never before so thunderstruck by the simple failure to grasp the difference between 'reasons salient to ME' and 'reasons salient to YOU'?

Well, this time, I did NOT laugh, damn it. I teach people how to think, for god's sake. This - THIS! - was a Teachable Moment (TM).

Me: "Does that strike you as a good reason for you to want the class?"

Student, blankly: "Uh, yeah."

Me: "Good, that's fine. Now, does that strike you as a good reason for ME to want YOU to be IN the class?"

Student, brow furrowed and clearly guessing: "Uh, yes?"

Me: "No, no... look, it makes no difference to me what your schedule is, right? This is what we were talking about at the beginning of the semester. To you, it follows from 'This is convenient to my schedule' that 'I want to be in this class', but what you NEED to do is construct an argument that gets to 'you (the professor) should want to let me into this class', and the premise you're -"

Student, walking away: "It's fine, I'll find another class."

Getting Students to Think: 0

Getting Students to Leave Me the Hell Alone: 1

I'll take it.


  1. Ah, yes. Step 1 to making an effective argument: define/understand your audience. This can be very tough for students who have little experience considering the perspective of others, especially adults older than they.

    Maybe the lesson will sink in over time. In any case, you tried (and he isn't in your class, at least not next semester).

  2. While I chuckled, you did ask the student if there was some reason he needed to be in the class. You were asking about his perspective, and he answered appropriately.

    Maybe (a slim maybe, perhaps) it would be better to ask, "Is there some reason why I should overcrowd the classroom by letting you in?"

  3. Socrates would be proud. Mind you, he got killed for being so annoying....
    CM has been full of good advice today (well, as the jargonistas would say, "good modelling"): thanks.

  4. Although I agree that most students need to learn how to make an effective argument based on the audience, it is often rather convenient that they don't. In this case, you got to hear the real reason, not some made up excuse.

  5. I might have been "Student" a number of years ago. In my last semester (summer) I needed one of two possible electives in my major. The one I wanted was full, so I went to that professor (whom I'd had before) and asked if I could get in his Physiological Foundations of Hamster Anatomy course because, "I need it to graduate."

    Dr. First Choice said, "It's full. Take Hamsterlogical Environmental Influences. It's at the same time and fulfills the same requirement."

    "But I don't want to take HEI with Dr. Other Professor (whom I'd also had). I want to take PFHA with you. It will be more interesting."

    "PFHA requires a 20 page research paper. Are you sure you still want it?"

    "Yes, please."

    "I don't want to grade another paper. No means no. I'm sure you'll enjoy Dr. Other Professor's class." (I showed him. I didn't enjoy it. Not one bit. And I'm not bitter about it, lo these many years later.)

  6. The problem with the exchange above is the subtext:

    hir: "Please do this thing which would be nice for you and cost you nothing."

    you: "Here is why you asking me was a totally stupid thing to do..."

    hir: "Fine, be a dick."

    Although this wasn't the semantic content of the exchange, nonetheless the student probably felt that at least some of the above was implied. The important bit was that the student believed implicitly that adding hir to the class was not very costly to anyone, or at the very least hoped that that was the case.

    1. If the kid has made it this far into the semester without suspecting that my answer to any given question will be at least somewhat dickish, s/he hasn't been paying attention.

    2. Wylodmayer, that night be my favorite comment ever.

  7. After all these years, I still think it's the craziest thing: signing up for a specialized upper-division class on a topic you have no interest in, no curiosity about, merely because it "fulfills a requirement" and "fits into my schedule". What do they expect? That "advanced Cavia physiology" will be trivial? That the proffie will cut them some slack, since it's just a formality anyway? So I'm...baffled when I hear that, which happens at least once every semester (even with advanced graduate courses, a story for another day.)

    So I give them the usual warnings at the outset: listen, this course is hard, I mean really hard, so don't take it for the wrong reasons. I make it clear in the first few lectures too, hoping they'll come to their senses before the add/drop period is over. And they don't, and everyone suffers.


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